by James Stewart III
Taking a pale blue laundry basket from the closet, Jim has the boys follow him outside. He isn’t sure how he hadn’t thought about this before.
They walk out of the building and turn left past the dead-end sign and into the cornfield. Jim doesn’t know shit about corn. Chicagoland doesn’t have all that much in common with the rest of the Midwest outside of an amorphous politeness, which manifests itself in looking people in the eye when walking down the street and exchanging a “hey,” or a familiar head nod.
He thinks about a method of selection and doesn’t have one aside from “grab the big ones.”
Instantly the boys begin hunting for the most enormous ears of corn possible. Whenever Jim looks back, they’re simulating a knife fight with corn stand-ins, or measuring one ear against another, then discarding the smaller one back into the field.
Jim fills the basket in no time, then tells the boys to “quit it.” They each deposit a single battle-tested ear into the laundry basket then head back inside. He sets the laundry basket in the bathroom, so they can shuck the corn without making a mess of the kitchen, and tells the boys to go grab the biggest pot they have.
“This one?” they ask upon returning, each holding a handle, the pot nearly half their size.
Jim nods, and they all begin making a mess, shucking the corn and tossing the husks in the tub. Tiny pieces of the silky tops stick to tile and hands, shredded leaves fall, the chunky shanks lump around, and a few individual kernels break free. Jim’ll scrub the tub later.
After shucking each ear, he tosses the corn to the boys to place in the pot, which they do with enthusiasm. Too much. The first few they slam dunk into the pot while shouting the names of their favorite basketball players.
They do it one-handed, two-handed, reverses, 360’s, an east-bay funk dunk, all until Jim turns around.
“Hey! Don’t do it so hard! You’ll break the corn.”
Connie appears in the bathroom doorway.
“Are you even sure that corn’s for eating?”
“What else would it be for?”
Ripping the husk off an ear, Jim shows it to her. It looks like corn, the comic book yellow beads perfectly covering its cylindrical core.
Connie shakes her head and walks away.
Jim hands the boys the ear he showed Connie and watches them place it in the pot. They’ve made some changes to their method. The boys are now whispering their favorite player’s names and setting the corn in the pot with a much more gentle finger roll.
The pot’s full, and there’s still corn to husk in the laundry basket, the bathtub covered in green leaves and that silky stuff. He took too much, excited by the prospect of free food for a big family. Yes, technically it was stealing, but after a youth hearing stories of actual crimes, this doesn’t register as anything to worry about. He laughs at the thought, as if this would be what brings him down.
The boys are stacking shucked corn on top of the pot like Lincoln Logs.
“That’s good now,” Jim says.
Picking up the pot, a superhuman feat of strength to the boys, Jim heads to the kitchen. The first thing he has to do there is take nearly half of the corn out so he can add water. Connie tries not to encourage them with attention, but Jim catches her sneaking looks toward the kitchen anyway.
“Corn tonight! Free corn tonight!” the boys sing, waiting for the water to boil.
Jim sets the table for the corn feast. Gathers up the salt, butter, a tiny spreading knife, and those things you jab into each end to eat it without making a mess.
“Water’s boiling! Water’s boiling! Bubbles, bubbles, water’s boiling song!”
“Make sure it doesn’t boil over.”
After a few minutes, Jim turns off the heat, covers the pot, and waits a bit longer. The boys find this part boring, so they’ve run off to the living room to play or fight. It’s fine. Jim leans against the refrigerator and Connie walks in and lifts the lid.
“Doesn’t look right,” she says with Jim looking over her shoulder.
“Been in there long enough,” he says.
“We could try it.”
“Take one out.”
Connie finds the tongs, then shakes off the excess water over the pot. They look dry somehow. The leaves did seem a little thicker than corn from the store, but Jim just thought that’s how it was fresh from the field. Connie blows on the corn to cool it down, then hands it to Jim, who’s taken a plate from the table. He stabs the ear with those corn stabby things, puts on some butter, a little salt, smiles at Connie, then takes a bite, or rather tries to take a bite. It’s like eating pebbles.
“Just needs a little more butter.”
He slathers the cob and hopes this will do anything. He takes another bite. It didn’t.
Since there’s something people enjoy about sharing bad experiences, Connie tries the corn too.
“Oh god. Oh no. We can’t eat this. This has to be the stuff they use to feed cows.”
Jim nods in agreement. The kids are probably hungry by now. Jim definitely is. Their options in the house to save dinner are all still frozen blocks of meat or another night of spaghetti.
“We’ll just run out and get some burgers. Boys!”
They fly around the corner into the small kitchen.
“Nah, we’re going to get burgers instead.”
“What about the corn?”
“It’s no good.”
“Here, before we get in the car,” Jim takes the large pot, dumps it into the sink letting the water drain and leaving the warm corn. Then he brings the trash can out from beneath the sink and sets it atop the counter.
“You two can dunk the rest of the corn into the trash if you can reach it.”
James Stewart III is a Black writer from Chicago. He earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA from North Central College. This story is from Stewart’s unpublished novel manuscript about a multi-racial working-class family’s daily struggles and the costs they pay for loving each other. He also co-curates the text-based performance series “The Guild Complex presents Exhibit B.” His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge, 580 Split, Pangyrus, Cleaver, Another Chicago Magazine, and Cowboy Jamboree. www.jamesstewart3.com
3 responses to “Dead Ends”
It’s the sadness that hits you in this story. The desire to make things right even though they look so wrong. I guess hanging on and not giving up, and the line that shouldn’t be crossed but is marked as flexible territory. And the slam dunks that try to save the day. 🙂
Thanks for the kinds words, Terveen!
Really powerful story.
I feel the boys’ play is so important,
I hope they keep their playful optimism.